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Britain’s determination to cling onto imperial greatness

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3943 words Published: 7th Jun 2021

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1. Introduction

Empire is inherently present in public and private life in Britain. In acknowledging that empire did not end with formal decolonisation and political freedom, this essay will examine the imperial roots of Britain’s contemporary identity crisis in considering the effects of colonialism on the British psyche. In examining how Britain’s contemporary identity has been shaped by the Empire-Commonwealth, this essay will question British claims to be  postcolonial. This essay will focus on the moment of decolonisation in investigating how the Empire-Commonwealth has informed British self-conceptions, laying the foundations for the contemporary crisis of Britishness. The essay will examine how decolonisation, in destabilising the whole notion of Britain and Britishness, both challenged and bolstered the identity the colonial experience had bestowed Britain with. In examining how decolonisation bolstered Britain’s imperial self-conception, this essay first examines how a Whiggish discourse of imperial history allows for decolonisation to be reconstituted within Britain’s national character. Consequently, in analysing the imperial nostalgia underpinning Britain’s foreign policies as decolonisation threatened the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, this essay seeks to reveal Britain’s determination to cling onto imperial greatness. Moreover, in investigating the development of a “siege mentality” in post-empire Britain, this essay will evaluate how British attitudes to Commonwealth immigration are guided by an imperialistic understanding of itself underpinned by postcolonial melancholia. Therefore, this essay will argue that Britain’s sense of itself as a liberal, global, power remains shaped by its colonial past, resulting in a crisis of Britishness as changes in Britain’s international standing were not accompanied by a parallel psychological change.

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2. Empire and Remaining Great

The Empire-Commonwealth continues to shape how Britain perceives itself, and understands its place in the world. The breadth and scale of the British empire at its height assured Britain of its place at the upper echelons of world power, providing the British with a sense of themselves as a liberal and civilising world power. This sense of superiority arising from the colonial experience was sustained amidst decolonisation and the subsequent loss of Britain’s great power status through a vision of imperial history which saw the ‘empire as a benign, liberalising force in the world’ (Lowrance-Floyd et al 2012:iii). This Whiggish discourse thus allowed for the conceptualisation of a British imperial identity as that of a ‘benevolent power bestowing the blessings of liberty and civilisation’ on its colonies (ibid 2012:26), providing an outlet through which Britain could claim that the end of empire put British principles into practice (ibid 2012:iii). As such, while the structural context of Britain’s position in the world changed, it was not accompanied by a simultaneous psychological change (Ward 2008). British mentalities remain caught up in the founding myth of imperialism—that it was intended to lead to the export of the British genius for governance to subject populations in the colonies (Ward 2008), allowing for decolonisation to be understood as the fulfilment of its imperial mission. The experience of colonialism thus encouraged the colonisers to impute to themselves a sense of moral superiority and importance, which was later incorporated into the British selfhood. Similarly, in forecasting a teleology in which Empire would peacefully transform into a free, associative Commonwealth of Nations (Lowrance-Floyd et al 2012:iii), the Whiggish discourse reveals how Britain’s imperial endeavour was reconstituted as a progressive ideal, imagined as a brotherhood free of racism, military oppression and economic exploitation in the New Commonwealth (Schofield 2013:25). The British public, far from turning away from empire in moral disgust, were thus comfortably soothed by this new patriotic vision of Britain as primus inter pares in the multiracial Commonwealth (White 1999:37). Therefore, in providing the British with a sense of themselves as a force for good in the world, the Empire-Commonwealth has cemented the belief within Britain that it continues to be a great power in the world, with all the accompanying rights and responsibilities.

3. Decolonisation and Foreign Policy

Indeed, Britain’s imperial past has contributed to the contemporary crisis of Britishness within the United Kingdom as the reality of decolonisation clashed with the enduring vision of a great Britain. This essay posits that the loss of its overseas empire led to a crisis of Britishness linked to the ‘psychological trauma brought on by no longer being a ruling imperial power’ (Ward 2008).  This loss was further compounded by the prospect of the dissolution of the Union since the empire had acted as a force for convergence, enabling the creation of an overarching British identity that could incorporate the different nationalities within the United Kingdom (UK) (Thompson 2012:344). Britain was hence left doubly-exposed, facing the loss of both its “inner” and overseas empire, heightening the sense of vulnerability accompanying its dramatic fall from grace. British anxieties resulting from the fragility of the Union can thus be argued to have motivated the declaration of war over the Falkland Islands in 1982. Having lost its empire and confronted by the potential loss of its “inner” empire, the Falklands War provided the chance to show that, empire or not, ‘Britain had not lost the capacity to solve the problems facing it’ (Whiting 2012:206). The Falklands War was thus not simply a war of intervention, but also a colonial “war of defence” (Howe 2003:293), providing an opportunity for Britain to re-assert its ability and willingness, to defend its territorial sovereignty. The war, in encouraging an ‘anachronistic vision of national greatness, driven by the inherited ideology of absolute, indivisible sovereignty’ (Howe 2003:293), can hence be argued to be driven by British desire to counter the loss of status and self-esteem resulting from decolonisation, and re-impose itself as a world power. This suggests that British foreign and defence policy remain guided by imperial nostalgia insofar as it recalls notions of, and seeks to recapture, imperial greatness.

That Britain’s defence budget is disproportionately large in comparison with its European neighbours can only be explained by ‘having a different view of what kind of contributor we are in the world’ (Quinlan in Ward 2008). This highlights how Britain consistently sees itself as a major power with a global role to play, with this bringing with it special responsibilities (Morris 2011:327). While the Falklands War arguably signified the advent of a post-imperial Conservatism, in prioritising British self-interests above that of its wider responsibilities, New Labour’s rhetoric of liberal interventionism or ‘moralising internationalism’, accompanying more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has harkened back to an imperial past (Thompson 2012:339). This is significantly illustrated through Britain’s “ethical foreign policy”, which seeks to allow Britain to be ‘a leading partner in a world community’ and ‘a force for good in the world’ (Cook 1997 in Morris 2011:334) in approving these interventions. That this predisposition to ‘engage in and influence…world affairs…is an indisputable part of the British character’ (Hague 2010) suggests that colonialism encouraged the colonisers to impute to themselves a sense of moral superiority and importance, which was later incorporated into the British selfhood and continues to guide policy-making in the UK. This posits that British foreign and defence policy remain guided by a sense of imperial nostalgia, reflecting Britain’s desire to ‘relive the glory days of empire while simultaneously mourning its demise’ (Thompson 2012:331). Therefore, the belief that Britain continues to be a force for good and a great power in the world must be understood to be a legacy of its colonial past. Britain’s long history of colonial influence and hegemony in the Empire-Commonwealth continue to shape British self-conceptions.

4. Decolonisation and the Turn to Europe

Furthermore, the Empire-Commonwealth has shaped Britain’s ambivalent attitudes to Europe through the enduring sense of greatness accompanying the concept of Britishness. Since the UK was primarily established to further the imperial quest, ‘when the empire disappeared, so did the original raison d’être’ of the UK (Weight 2003:727). Following the end of formal empire, Britishness thus had to find new moorings since the very character of empire itself, in strengthening the UK’s distinct national identities, also provided the pattern of a less cohesive post-imperial British state (Kumar 2012:321). This search for new moorings led Britain to turn to Europe in an attempt to forge a new, postcolonial British identity that could subsume its various nationalities, and thus maintain its territorial sovereignty and imperial status by ensuring Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remained within its “inner” empire. However, while the loss of empire may have destabilised the Union, it would be premature to suggest that the Union would dissolve without empire. While its demise changed the context of discussions surrounding Britishness, many other factors continued to unite the Union (Ward 2008). The monarchy remained important during decolonisation (Ward 2008), and respect for the monarchy acted as a glue binding the different nationalities together. Equally, the notion of a British welfare state remains central, with the National Health Service being held up as a model for the world (Ward 2008). The NHS hence assumes a similar role to empire in providing Britons with the feeling of having a stake in the wider Union since pride in the welfare state, and a share in its fruits, is shared by all Britons. Therefore, though the empire was a significant factor in the lives of British people, it was not all-pervasive (Thompson 2005:241).

Nonetheless, British ambivalence to Europe remains guided by imperial notions of greatness. Britain’s initial hostility to the European Economic Community (EEC) can be traced to Britain’s belief that its leadership of the Commonwealth was crucially important to its global rule (May 2013:30). Its role as primus inter pares in the Commonwealth was believed to bolster Britain’s political and economic position in its pretensions to a global power, equal in stature to the USA and the USSR (Burkett 2013:68). When Britain eventually decided to join the EEC in 1973, this decision was motivated by the realisation that standing outside key developments in the “European circle” risked a severe diminution in Britain’s relative weight as a great power, potentially consigning Britain to a minor role in international affairs (May 2013:32). This posits that Britain’s turn to Europe was guided by its desire to maintain its global rule rather than pragmatism, suggesting that perceptions of British greatness, borne of colonialism, constantly inform policy-making. Similarly, British Euroscepticism must be understood to result from Britain’s delusions of continued greatness. Britain’s consistent resistance to European integration was guided by the conviction that it was a world power, not just a European power (White 1999:12). This scepticism towards Europe was brought to the fore with the Brexit vote, with the Brexit campaign motivated with an ‘imperial longing to restore Britain’s place in the world as primus inter pares’ (Virdee and McGeever 2017:1802). This is exemplified through Brexit campaigns that emphasise “taking back control”, and the “Global Britain” project (ibid 2017:1804-1805). Significantly, to speak of a Global Britain not only asserts future greatness, but also invokes warm collective memories of a past world where Britain was the global hegemon (ibid 2017:1805). In recalling the glory days of empire, Euroscepticism is therefore driven by a longing to restore Britain’s place in the world and a belief that Britain has the ability to continue acting as a great power. Therefore, British ambivalence towards Europe remain shaped by the imperial legacies and mindsets inherited from the colonial experience. While Britain’s position in the world has changed, it has not been accompanied by a mindset change among Britons who continue to perceive Britain as a great power.

5. Decolonisation and Multicultural Britain

Additionally, the Empire-Commonwealth has given rise to a multicultural Britain through a reversal of the colonial encounter resulting from the end of empire. Commonwealth migration has necessitated an expansion of Britishness to incorporate other, non-white, narratives through a transformation of Britain’s ethnic demography. Where the ideology of colonialism had produced a false sense of cultural homogeneity in Britain (Nandy 1988:33), the arrival of migrants from the Caribbean and South Asia marked a re-imagining of the nation such that Britain became defined by a ‘shared, cross-class allegiance to whiteness’ (Virdee and McGeever 2017:9). This posits that the loss of prestige associated with the demise of empire resulted in the racialisation of nationalism, revealing how the vision of a multiracial Commonwealth was rarely matched by one of a multiracial Britain (Webster 2012:134). In challenging notions of a homogenous, white, British nation, Commonwealth migration led to a crisis of Britishness, engendering the belief that Britain is ‘under siege, it is time to pull up the drawbridge’ (Virdee and McGeever 2017:1811). This “siege mentality” thus highlights British determination to cling onto imperial glory, and to myths of itself as a homogenous, liberal power, evident through the mythic status acquired by the memory of victory against the Nazis (Gilroy 2004:97). Since that victory, the life of the nation has been dominated by an inability to face the profound change in circumstances following the end of empire, and consequent loss of imperial prestige (Gilroy 2004:98). In stripping away the ‘fantasy of omnipotence’ (Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich 1978 in Gilroy 2004:108) provided by colonialism, decolonisation prompted the development of a postcolonial melancholia as Britain sought to forget its imperial sins which were fundamentally at odds with its liberal identity. In producing an air-brushed version of colonial history, Britain’s post-imperial hungering for renewed greatness thus occludes any coming to terms with the ‘corrosive legacies of colonial conquest and racist subjugation’ (Virdee and McGeever 2017:1802). Commonwealth migration, in threatening to collapse the boundary between empire and metropolis, is therefore understood to pose a threat to the identity the British have imagined for themselves to ignore the uncomfortable reality of colonialism. That the immigrant is here because Britain was out there (Webster 2012:125) suggests that these incomers are unwanted and feared precisely because they are the ‘unwitting bearers of the imperial and colonial past’ (Gilroy 2004:110). The ‘infrahuman political body of the immigrant’ comes to represent the discomforting ambiguities of the empire’s shameful history (Gilroy 2004:10). As such, migration from the Commonwealth had to be curbed to protect Britain’s liberal identity, underlining how the psyche of the British remain entrenched within a vision of imperial grandeur. This was evidenced through the restriction of Commonwealth immigration, which involved a ‘narrowing of British identity from the expansive Commonwealth of equal nations’ to a definition of “our people” that refused entry to black and Asian immigrants (Webster 2012:137). Imperial legacies thus continue to inform political life in post-imperial Britain, reflected through the UK Home Office’s hostile environment policy, and the subsequent Windrush scandal, which follow the trend set in characterising immigrants as a threat to Britishness so as to restore Britain’s long-vanished homogeneity and preserve its imperial identity.

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However, recognising that ‘theories of racism grounded solely in the analysis of colonial history and which prioritise the single somatic characteristic of skin colour have a specific and limited explanatory power’ (Miles 1993:148 in Webster 2012:128), this essay suggests that the history of Commonwealth migration needs to be set in the wider context of 20th century immigration to Britain (Thompson 2012:342). There were instances of “indigenous racism” in which colonial mentalities played a minor role, with ‘anti-alien sentiments expressed against European migrants’ throughout the 19th and 20th century (Webster 2012:128). Nevertheless, the racialisation of Britishness arising from the ‘anxieties of empire and whiteness coming home to Britain’ (Lowrance-Floyd et al 2012:15) have given rise to the deep and painful sense of unbelonging experienced by Commonwealth immigrants. Immigrants continue to be identified as a threat to a Britishness that remains widely conceived in ‘insular, all-white, and nativist terms’ (Thompson 2012:343). British attitudes to migration thus remain influenced by imperial notions of itself as a culturally homogenous nation, provoking a crisis of Britishness when confronted with the reality of a multicultural Britain following Commonwealth migration. Therefore, Commonwealth migration in threatening to expose Britain’s fantasy of itself as a liberal power acting as a force for good in the world, has provoked a postcolonial melancholia in response to a crisis of Britishness in multicultural Britain.

6. Conclusion

In the final analysis, in exploring how the experience of empire and decolonisation has informed Britishness, this essay argues that while the Empire-Commonwealth has been pivotal in shaping modern Britain, it has not been all-pervasive. Other factors continue to act as a glue for an overarching British identity and work to inform British attitudes to societal changes. Nevertheless, the empire remains as a foil against which a specific British national character has been consistently defined and imagined. In evaluating Britain’s foreign and domestic policies, and through an investigation of Britain’s postcolonial melancholia, this essay posits that the contemporary crisis of Britishness is a result of decolonisation and its ensuing effects threatening to undermine the idea of a liberal, global Britain. Post-imperial Britain’s actions and decisions must thus be understood to be guided by a desire to restore Britain to its former glory, perpetuating a wilful amnesia regarding the egregious and problematic aspects of colonial rule. This essay has explored how Britain, in seeking to maintain notions of itself as a liberal, global power, has accommodated decolonisation within its national character, choosing to understand it as a fulfilment of its destiny rather than a challenge to identity. Therefore, while the structural context of Britain’s international standing has changed, British mindsets remain stuck in the imperial past. In exploring how legacies of colonialism continue to shape British self-conceptions, this essay acknowledges that colonialism does not end with the loss of formal empire. The psychological effects of colonialism continue to effect contemporary British society in tangible, damaging ways. While bereft of empire, Britain is arguably not yet postcolonial and remains shackled by oppressive colonial mentalities. Colonialism as a state of mind, having begun in the minds of men, must also end in the minds of men. There is yet hope for a decolonial British state of mind, through the gradual expansion of Britishness to incorporate alternative, non-white narratives and identities. That Britain has yet to fully come to terms with, and acknowledge its imperial past, perhaps explains the complexity and contradictions encountered within the study of Britishness.


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